Aikido Kobayashi Dojo

Aikido, My Way.

Part 5 The Need for Children's Class

Until 1965, Hombu Dojo didn’t have children’s classes.  But that year, a children’s class was started because of Koichi Tohei Shihan’s overseas experience.

When I opened my own dojo, I started a children’s class for my son, Hiroaki, who was then 3 1/2 years old, and a few neighbor kids. I hadn’t taught children before, so at first I instructed them just as the adults or university students classes but the children would do one throw then stop and chat with their partner or start goofing around and not practice. Parents came along with their kids because they wanted to see how I was teaching them. The first two or three times were just awful. They asked me why I was allowing children to practice in the dojo.  I then asked the parents in attendance why they enrolled their child in a martial art program, and their answers were:

  1. I want to teach proper etiquette for a martial arts dojo
  2. The one’s with abundant energy can find a balance
  3. The physically weak one’s can be stronger
  4. I want to encourage them to be gentle and develop their personalities and to be able to relax.
  5. I want to have friends for my son who is an only child.
  6. I want to have them to be able to move more gracefully.

I understand that the Aikido techniques themselves don’t necessarily cover most of these concerns.  So we pay serious attention to discipline in the dojo. They have to line up their bikes and shoes and check-in on the roll sheet, and then change clothes in the changing rooms.

Today, there is Velcro, which is convenient, but it renders many children, fourth and fifth year elementary school students, even unable to tie their gi pants at first.  We teach them how to tie their belts and fold their keiko gis properly.

We also insist the children greet the Sensei properly when they come.  “Good morning.” “Good afternoon.” “Thank you.” “Good Bye.”  When their names are called they need to answer promptly in a loud voice.

We have easy-to-understand warm-up exercises, and different ways of teaching ukemi.  Just for ukemi practice alone we thought of over fifteen ways of training them at the same time so they can have fun.

We have to teach children from four years old to sixth graders together.  We standardized movements and have them do the techniques in a one, two, three pattern.  Later, when they are high school students they’ll be capable of more complex techniques.

During practice, when demonstrating a technique, the instructor has the children lined up in pairs together and first has one side do the technique, then the other.  Everyone can see clearly and it’s easy to teach. The instructor also uses all kinds of props that while training the students allow them to have fun as well.

The children have fun practicing and because their parents come to observe this way of teaching, the number of children taking class grew rapidly.  This created some problems.

I ask the children if they like Aikido and I’d get some replies such as “it takes up my free time” or “my parents told me to do it.”  Once they come to practice, even these kids begin to like Aikido.

Then there were children who’d spend the first one or two months crying.  That was because they couldn’t see their parents during practice.  Once I heard crying outside after I thought all the kids had gone home. When I checked, one child, still in his keiko gi had snagged his belt on something.  From the next practice, that child really began to practice diligently.

Sometimes we have girls who just do not want to change into their gis, even though there’s a separate women’s dressing room.  They’d watch practice from the corner of the kitchen.  After four months, there was a test. I said if she took an ukemi, she’d be promoted and could wear a different colored belt, so she did.  From the next practice, she joined and helped other kids.

After every children’s class test, the belt color changed. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, dark blue, purple – these are the colors of the rainbow.  Sometimes the promotion would include one or two white stripes on the colored belt.  The children seem happy when their belt colors change.

When young children arrive in the dojo, they can run around the dojo and shout before finally sitting in place.  This sort of thing they can’t do in their own homes.

We have the children take flying ukemi over a child who is bent over acting as a barrier.  For kids in nursery school or kindergarten, we help them take the ukemi.  First and second year elementary school students first decide whether they can do ukemi or not over the barrier.  If they decide they can’t, they run up to the barrier and stop – we don’t ask them to do it right away.  At school there are all kinds of methods on learning.  Students in third grade and older may feel embarrassed if they can’t do ukemi and might try even if they think they can’t.  This is a problem that makes us consider the best ways to educate children. Then there are high school students who play hooky and don’t come to practice, returning home after the practice time.  Once a high school student skipping practice was in a near by bank when a robbery occurred, so the parents got a call from the police checking his address during the time he should have been at practice.  Well, he wasn’t at practice.  It seems like we can’t misbehave, can we?

Aikido Leads to Virtue

Overseas there are childrens classes as well.  Children in other countries count in Japanese, one, two, three and learn to pronounce the techniques in Japanese as well – “shihonage, kotegaeshi” etc. It’s heartwarming to hear them say “onegaishimasu” and ”arigatogozaimashita.”  Just like children everywhere, however, they look around and don’t pay attention.  Aikido as a martial art includes some good disciplinary practices. These customs are necessary to learn and keep from an early age.

Nowadays the homes that have no tatami rooms are increasing so in a culture that is losing the custom of sitting in seiza (legs folded under) the practice of kneeling and giving proper greeting is an extremely important experience.  Studying English from an early age also is important, but it is critical to teach Japanese tradition as well.

There are students who live in the dojo who come from various countries; we can see what kind of basic education they’ve received by observing their everyday life.  The family gives children an important foundation.

Aikido Trains the Whole Person

We are teaching the childrens classes with the idea of training the whole body.  Training, like in baseball, where only one part of the body is developed is very dangerous.

We created “run” “hop” “turn” movements that children can enjoy doing.  Kids sometimes trip when their arms are not extended and their faces hit the mat.  There are stories I’ve heard that among the children who come to the dojo are kids who have fallen, or who have tripped down stairs or fallen off their bikes and have escaped injury.  Also parents tell me that their children suddenly darted out into the street and in front of an oncoming car and immediately did an ukemi and didn’t get a scratch.

“It’s a good thing they’re learning Aikido,” the parents say thanking me.

Then there are the children who were weak but got stronger, and the kids who were troubled and healed. All of these points of view I feel are good reasons to teach children in Aikido.  But there are many cases where parents have pulled their kid out of Aikido because “their studies are important” and that’s unfortunate. The cultivation of Aikido doesn’t end with what I’ve just talked about.

Today children are practicing Aikido all over the world, even more than in Japan.  Not to be outdone by other countries, I’d like to teach as many children as possible here.

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